Monday, 29 March 2010

What to do when you read bad books

I've been reading through Gene Wolfe's essays in Castle of Days (1992) as preparation for my thesis. My favourite has to be the hilarious "Lone Wolfe: A Self-Conducted Interview with Gene Wolfe" from 1983. I particularly loved the following passage (pp. 315-6):
Q: You have the reputation of being one of the nicest guys in the field. We both know you're a hyena on its hind legs. How have you fooled everyone?
A: By keeping my mouth shut when I read garbage.
Q: Have you found that difficult?
A: No. I'm constantly running into people who've read bad books clean to the end. I admire them more than I can say, but I can't do that—when I get shit in my eyes I close them fast and cry.
Q: You also throw the book at the wall and scare the dog.
A: Yeah. And when somebody asks me how I liked the book, I say I haven't read it, because it's really not fair for me to judge without finishing the book. Maybe the last nine-tenths are marvelous. But I doubt it.
There are some fascinating essays in the collection (and some less so). There is a definite religious focus in many of his essays in The Castle of the Otter, the companion volume to The Book of the New Sun, which I believe reveals the degree to which religious and theological ideas were central to the book's development and writing.

Now it's on to Shadows of the New Sun: Wofle on Writing/Writers on Wolfe, edited by Peter Wright. I'm mining the essays (and interviews) for what Wolfe says about his own faith, ideology and worldview. I've read much of what he's written on the topic before, but now I have to relocate it for proper citation.

Friday, 19 March 2010

The Demonstration of Transcendence in Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun

I have settled on a theme for the third chapter of my thesis. The introduction to the thesis will summarise my arguments, look briefly at the history of religion and the idea of transcendence in the science fiction genre, and introduce Gene Wolfe. The first chapter will be an in-depth analysis of The Book of the Long Sun and its representation of materialism / scientism and religion / transcendence. The second chapter will compare Wolfe's tetralogy to other works of science fiction, especially earlier generation ship stories. Originally, my third and final chapter was going to be on Patera Silk (The Book of the Long Sun's protagonist) and the role of the priest in science fiction. However, I have decided that this topic is too complex to spend a mere 5000 words on, since I would have to acknowledge a huge number of other science fiction stories and would probably just end up repeating the arguments of my previous two chapters anyway.

Then it came to me: while Wolfe tells us about transcendence and the infinite through Silk's learning about 'the Outsider' (God), he also goes further and performs or demonstrates this very transcendence in his complex narrative style. In my third chapter, I will examine how Wolfe opens up The Book of the Long Sun, allowing it to transcend the text itself, and become more than some set story or narrative.

The philosophical framework for my analysis will be provided by Emmanuel Levinas, a twentieth century French philosopher who wrote extensively about ethics, transcendence, and the idea of infinity. According to Levinas, a fictional text is only 'ethical' if it resists becoming part of the 'totality' - that is, if it resists becoming a simple, set story that can be fully comprehended and completely 'known'. As an example, he often cites Dostoevsky, in whose work he sees the possibility of a multitude of interpretations. In his opinion, the text's resistance to any definitive interpretation allows it to demonstrate the idea of infinity, and accurately reflect our inability to fully comprehend or internalise the world in which we live.

Emmanuel Levinas. Photo by Bracha L. Ettinger.

I will look at three ways in which Wolfe achieves this opening up in The Book of the Long Sun: [spoilers follow]
  1. The raising of questions which go unanswered. There are many questions left at the end of the fourth book that seem to be unanswered (although, of course, the answer may sometimes be hidden in the text itself). These would include: what was really taking place with the appearance of Patera Pike as a 'ghost'? does Silk, at the end of the fourth book, get 'digitised' and become a 'god' himself? who is Silk's (biological and adoptive) family? to what extent are the inhabitants of the whorl successful in escaping their dying ship? what happens to Silk and Hyacinth, who remain in the whorl?
  2. The "slingshot ending". This is written about by Kim Stanley Robinson, who attributes Wolfe with the invention of the "slingshot ending", wherein the pace of the narrative builds to a dense, complex flurry of activity at the end of the story. Each of the four books in the tetralogy demonstrates this type of perplexing ending: Silk encountering 'himself' at the end of Nightside; the ambush and (ironic) murder of Crane at the end of Lake; Silk's murder of Blood at the end of Caldé (and the book's confusing epilogue); the revelation that Horn is the author of the books at the end of Exodus. The effect of this "slingshot ending" narrative technique is that it leaves the reader wondering what is taking place, raising questions about what has been happening in the book and what will happen after the narrative ends.
  3. The unreliable narrator. Almost the entire tetralogy is written in the third person by a supposedly omniscient narrator. With the revelation at the end of the final book that one of the text's minor characters, Silk's pupil Horn (with the aid of his wife Nettle), is in fact the book's author, the entire narration is thrown into question, and we can no longer assume the accuracy of what we have been told.
All three of these, of course, are narrative techniques commonly used by Wolfe, and when describing each of them I will also refer to their use in some of Wolfe's other work. The space which these techniques create is one in which the hard tasks of decoding and interpretation can take place. This space transcends the text itself, and demonstrates for us the infinity described in the text.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Gene Wolfe interview on StarShipSofa

This week's issue of the StarShipSofa podcast (no. 124) contains a fantastic 45 minute interview with Gene Wolfe. He discusses a range of topics: he remembers back to experiences from his childhood, discusses the joy of writing and the nature of science fiction as a genre, updates on his current day-to-day life, and talks about his latest novel The Sorcerer's House (as well as mentioning some other recent and upcoming writing projects). Best of all, Wolfe sounds very happy while giving the interview, being glad to talk about his writing and his life. It is a great interview and definitely worth listening to. You can listen online or download the podcast here, or via iTunes here.

A few weeks back (no. 120) they had Wolfe's story "Pulp Cover" narrated. Previously there has been an audio play of "The Tree is My Hat" (no. 49), and a narration of "The Vampire Kiss" (no. 60), which was also published in StarShipSofa Stories Volume 1.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Aussiecon Two Convention Handbook

I love perusing my library's rare books collection. Today I came across the Aussiecon Two Convention Handbook. Aussiecon Two was the 43rd World Science Fiction Convention, held 22-26 August 1985 in Melbourne (Aussiecon Four is upon us later this year). The professional guest of honour for the convention was none other than Gene Wolfe. I would have gone, but I was only an embryo at the time.

The handbook includes the original publication of Wolfe's essay "Peace of My Mind"; an article by John Clute titled "Gene Wolfe – Shadow of the Torturer?"; and a short bibliography of Wolfe's fiction. There are also fantastic full-page advertisements for Wolfe's Free Live Free and the tetralogy of The Book of the New Sun. A lucky find! We also have the convention's conference proceedings at the library, with an article titled "Audience and the Narrators in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun" by Norman Talbot.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

New Thesis Plan: Delving into The Book of the Long Sun

I have decided, after a fair amount of reading over the summer, to focus my entire thesis around Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun. I was inspired to do this for two reasons: first, because in order to give "the role of the priest in science fiction" a half-decent treatment I would need to be doing a PhD thesis (or writing a book); and second, because the excellent articles on The Book of the Long Sun by Gevers and Beiting reminded me that there is plenty of fascinating material in Long Sun to fill an honours thesis (15,000-18,000 words).

The title of the thesis will probably be something along the lines of, "Materialism and Transcendence in Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun." A brief, tentative plan would go something like this:

  • Brief discussion of the relationship between science fiction (sf) and religion / transcendence / metaphysics.
  • The dominance of materialism, empiricism, scientism, and the scientific world-view in early / golden-age sf.
  • Post-WWII sf and the New Wave movement see the genre open up to philosophical treatments of religion, transcendence and metaphysics.
  • Gene Wolfe often has religious themes central to his sf.
    • About Wolfe and his work.
  • Description of Patera Silk's Vironese religion: Graeco-Roman Paganism + Roman Catholicism + Technological Fetishism [citing Beiting].
    • The pantheon of 'gods' worshiped turn out to be artificial intelligences (AI) of the generation ship (Whorl). They are neither all-powerful, nor even 'good'.
    • Silk comes to see these 'gods' for what they really are, and realises they are not worthy of worship.
  • However, at the beginning of the book, Silk is 'enlightened' by 'the Outsider'.
    • Unlike the other 'gods', the Outsider transcends (the Whorl, the 'gods', all things...).
  • Silk and the other characters attempt secular or scientific solutions to the Whorl's problems, but always end up having to return to the religious paradigm of the Outsider and Silk's original enlightenment [citing Gevers].
  • By having Silk undertake this personal spiritual journey, Wolfe overturns some major sf tropes...
  • This chapter would contain an in-depth analysis of the generation ship trope, detailing the 'usual' formula for the story, and how it serves as a scientific or materialist allegory, representing religion as an ignorant mythology.
  • The central analysis will probably be of Robert Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky, though I will also mention other generation ship stories.
  • For the most part Wolfe follows this formula, having Silk lose faith in the 'gods' of Vironese religion; but he also inverts the trope by sending Silk on a personal spiritual journey towards the Outsider, turning the tale into a story of metaphysics and transcendence.
    • The Book of the Long Sun as Christian allegory [citing Beiting].
  • This chapter would compare Wolfe's use of the priest protagonist to early uses, particularly those found in pulp sf.
  • Argument would probably be that while there are many different purposes for the priestly protagonist in sf, most authors use the character to attack organised religion, to show 'logical faults' with the religious world-view, or just to challenge faith in an all-powerful, all-loving God.
  • Central analysis would likely be Arthur C. Clarke's The Star.
  • Wolfe overturns this tendency as well, by having his priest, Silk, simultaneously lose faith in Vironese religion, and come to a stronger faith in the Outsider.
    • This also reflects the tension between materialism and transcendence in the text: Silk, in a sense, renounces the material and ritual aspect of Catholicism, while affirming the spiritual aspect.
    • This reflects Wolfe's own Catholic faith - even his (unorthodox) belief that the Graeco-Roman gods did exist, but were not all powerful and were not worthy of worship.
I am still unsure about the last chapter - I may end up re-focusing it on some other aspect of The Book of the Long Sun, but we shall see. I've got, probably, until mid-year to settle on it. So, thoughts?